The Welcome Table: Common Ground on Ethical Eating
Presenters: Rev. Michael Schuler, Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh
Food was a contentious issue for the first Christians, Paul’s epistles reveal. Today we are still trying to reconcile the ethics of eating with our hunger for community. Michael Schuler, an authority on sustainability and Senior Minister of our 1500 member Madison congregation, offers fresh ideas to chew on.
REV. JOHN GIBB MILLSPAUGH: Is this on? It is. Great. Are you on? Are you ready? Yes. Welcome, everyone, to this workshop. I don't have the number in front of me, and I'm supposed to read that, so could someone remind me, if you have that? 3046, which is The Welcome Table. We are delighted and honored and privileged to have with us Michael Schuler, who will be sharing a presentation for the majority of this time that we have together. And then afterwards, we have a microphone set up so that we can hear your comments and hear what this is sparking for you. We're hoping that it's not mostly focused on asking Michael questions. We just want to hear from you. We're a denomination with voices from many places, and that's how we're strong. But of course you can ask questions as well.
I want to congratulate you, if you were among, directly or indirectly, the people who passed the statement this morning—the Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice statement. Thank you. If you're wondering how you can get involved, and what your congregation can do in particular, I've written up a great website to get you started, which you might not be able to see, but it's www.tinyurl.com/wealleat.
And if you go to www.tinyurl.com/wealleat, you'll find a beautiful resource guide, 60 pages of colorful ideas about what congregations can do. You'll find resources to help you connect to groups even in your own local community, believe it or not. And you'll find a worship guide with excerpts of sermons and hymns already identified and readings that are relevant. That makes putting together a worship service on this topic very easy, which is something, I will tell you as a minister, that is always an attractive thing to find. So know that that's there.
But we're here now to hear, really, from Michael Schuler, who serves as the parish minister of the First Unitarian Society of Madison. During his 22-year tenure there, the Society has grown from 500 to over 1,500 adult members. Last year, 570 children registered for church school and youth activities. For the last several years, First Unitarian Society has been one of the three largest UU congregations in North America. In 2007, Madison—the congregation—was recognized as one of four breakthrough congregations at our continental GA [General Assembly]. Three years ago, the society dedicated a new 24,000-square-foot sustainably-designed addition that met the LEED standard for gold certification.
Schuler has been active on many local and denominational boards, including the Madison All-Campus Human Subjects Committee, the UW Madison Pathways to Excellence advisory board, and the Ethics Committee of the UW Health Center Fertility Clinic. Schuler was also a founding member of the steering committee of Dane County United, which is a broad-based organization of faith communities, labor unions, and neighborhood associations committed to promoting the common good.
For several years, he was a regular contributor to the features and editorial pages of Madison's afternoon newspaper, the Capital Times. His essays have appeared in various Skinner House publications, as well as Dharma World and the UU World magazines. In 2009, Berrett-Koehler Publishers issued Michael's book—
MICHAEL SCHULER: Shameless promotion.
REV. JOHN GIBB MILLSPAUGH: —shameless promotion. No shame at all. Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to Sustainable Living.
Denominationally, Schuler has chaired the Center Committee, a working group that plans and coordinates and implements continuing education programs for UU [Unitarian Universalist] ministers. He was the ministerial representative, for several years, on the UUA's [Unitarian Universalist Association's] large church planning team, and has previously delivered keynote addresses at the Central Midwest and Prairie Star and Southwest and Joseph Priestley District annual meetings, as well as the annual meeting of the New York State Universalist Convention. He has also conducted workshops on church growth—I wonder why—and sustainability throughout the country. Before being called to Madison, Schuler served UU congregations in Binghamton—I can't say that. I got four hours of sleep last night—New York, and Sioux City, Iowa.
He earned his BA in political science from Eckerd College, received his M. Div from Starr King School for the Ministry, and holds a PhD in the humanities from Florida State University. I don't know how he finds time for this, but as an avid distance runner for 35 years, Schuler has completed 10 full-length marathons. He also practices and teaches Tai Chi and Chi Gong. He's been married to Trina for 36 years, and their son Kyle, an illustrator, recently entered the Master of Art Education program at Savannah College of Art and Design.
He was born and raised on a small family farm. He's been consciously involved with agricultural issues his entire adult life, having worked with the UU Migrant Ministry and Farmworkers Movement since the early 1970s. He actively supports local food producers and has written a book which extols and promotes the progressive agricultural thinking of Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben.
But if you actually want to know the type of guy that Michael Schuler is, I think all you need is a brief story. Last night after the Service of the Living Tradition, I got a fair amount of information that looked like the Ethical Eating Statement of Conscience might be in serious trouble. So after that service, I called Michael. He was walking his dogs before heading to the reception in his honor. And I said, I know that you're busy and planning to stay up late into the night this evening, but I wonder if you'd be willing to support and speak to the Statement of Conscience at the 8:30 plenary tomorrow morning. Very much a last-minute request from a place of great concern for what was going to happen with that statement.
And he said, of course. I will be there. And he was. I present to you a very good man, the Reverend Dr. Michael Schuler.
MICHAEL SCHULER: I warn you that I will be speaking at somewhat greater length than last night, on five hours of sleep. So I did John one better.
John had originally wanted this presentation to be given to you yesterday, on Thursday, preceding the actual discussion and vote on the Ethical Eating Statement of Conscience. Unfortunately we had the rehearsal for the Service of the Living Tradition at the same time that the workshop was to be held. So if this feels like a bit of an anti-climactic presentation, we apologize for that. But hopefully you will have the opportunity to perhaps gain a fuller picture of what some of the issues surrounding ethical eating really are.
So I'd like to begin with a story from the Native American tradition. A couple of years ago, I was casting around for an intergenerational message in conjunction with Earth Day. And I came across this particular legend, and I think it's pertinent to what I want to talk about today.
One morning long ago, just as the sun was rising, all the men of the village heard a woman's voice singing downstream from the village where they lived. And the voice, the song, belonged to Bean Woman. And this is what she sang. "Who will marry me? Who will marry me? Let him ask, he who would marry me."
Bean Woman's voice was very beautiful. And many of the men followed the sound to where she sat beside the river bank. And the first to reach her was Mountain Lion Man. A very fast runner. "I will marry you," he said. "Will you accept me as your husband?"
Bean Woman stopped singing and looked at Mountain Lion Man, who crouched there in front of her with his long tail swinging from side to side. "If I marry you," she asked, "what food will I have from you to eat?"
"I am a very great hunter," he replied, "so you'll always have plenty of fresh meat."
"How awful," Bean Woman replied. "If I were to marry you, I would die of hunger, because I could never eat that kind of food." So Mountain Lion Man went away, sad and disappointed.
The next to arrive was Deer Man. "I will marry you," he proposed, "if you will accept me as your husband." Bean Woman stopped singing her song again. She looked at Deer Man, who stood there stomping his feet, his broad antlers raised high.
"What food will you give me to eat if I should marry you?" Bean Woman asked.
"I will give you the tender bark of the trees and sweet buds," Deer Man replied. "That is what I would eat, and that is what you should eat if you were to be my wife."
"Then I cannot marry you either," Bean Woman replied, "for I have never eaten food such as this and I would surely die." Deer Man went away sadly.
And as he left, the woman once again resumed her song. "Who will marry me? Who will marry me? Let him ask, he who would marry me."
Well, before long, Bear Man came along, out of the forest, and as he approached, Bean Woman stopped singing. "I will marry you, if you will accept me," said Bear Man.
And again, she asked, "What sort of food will you give to me if I should become your wife?"
Bear Man stood there swaying back and forth on his powerful hind legs. "I will give you all kinds of nuts, and berries, and grubs, and honey," he replied.
"Then I should die if I married you," she answered sadly, "for there is no way that I could eat those foods." And so Bear Man went away and Bean Woman continued to sing. But as she was singing, she sensed the presence of someone who had appeared as quietly as if he had come straight up out of the moist earth. She grew quiet, looked up, and Corn Man stood there close beside her, straight, tall, his golden hair blowing in the wind.
"I will marry you," he said, "if you will accept me."
"What food will you give me to eat?" she asked.
"Only sweet corn," he replied. "I will give you that, and no other food."
"If what you say is true," Bean Woman said, "then I shall marry you." And she rushed forward and she threw her arms around Corn Man's neck. "This is how it was meant to be," she said. "The Great Creator meant for us always to be with each other."
And so to this day, whenever you walk in the fields that are planted in the old Indian way, you will see the bean plants twined around the corn stalk in loving embrace.
I find that story to be meaningful for several reasons. In the first place, I did grow up on a family farm in northern Illinois. And in many respects, that farm was, by United States standards, a fairly conventional operation. Our 160 tillable acres of rich Rock River bottomland produced bumper crops of corn and soybeans, some of which helped to feed a few head of livestock that my brother and I tended. Like most country folk, we also planted and maintained a huge vegetable garden, the bounty of which we either eat fresh or preserved for later consumption.
And so there was always plenty of sweet corn, and pole beans, and melon, and squash, as well as lettuce and carrots and peas, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, and even the bane of my early existence, the unsavory rutabaga. We knew nothing, however, of Native American agricultural practices, and like our neighbors, we planted our beans and our squash and our corn separately, in those nice even rows. And when necessary, we enlisted the aid of Monsanto and Dow in an ongoing effort to keep invasive weeds and ravenous bugs at bay. If Bean Woman and Corn Man's was a match made in heaven, we were oblivious to it.
I didn't think too much about this until my wife Trina and I were able to spend a few months in the southwest some years ago, where we were able to observe firsthand the traditional farming practices of the Pueblo peoples. As we drove from one ancient Hopi village to another, I was struck by the innumerable small garden plots, each supporting 25, 40 or 50 synergistic clumps of corn and beans and squash, all thriving in this otherwise harsh and unforgiving climate. Despite the availability of a wide variety of commercial products, at least some Puebloans have retained this sacred sensibility about nurturing the same local staples that have sustained countless generations of their ancestors.
Their way of life has been so closely linked to the practice of desert farming, and so many of their kachinas, those protective spirits that they venerate, represent the natural elements on which farming depends that severing of that connection would cause a cultural identity crisis for many of these peoples. Because as Michael Ableman observes, there is another kind of nourishment less tangible than the corn and the beans that being connected to one's traditional lands provides.
Now there is, unfortunately, another side to that story. Because, like many indigenous Americans, the Hopi are now having to cope with mounting health problems. Diabetes and hypertension have reached epidemic levels, and billboards on reservation lands repeatedly warn of the life-threatening consequences of these chronic conditions. Fast food, convenience food, highly processed food have played a major role in the onset of these maladies, and efforts therefore are now being made to re-instill in Hopi youth a respect and an appreciation for the ancient farming and dietary traditions.
Hopi culture, then, represents a microcosm of a problem we all, to one degree or another, now face. Over the last fifty years, a dramatic shift has occurred in consumer spending for food and health care respectively. In terms of constant dollars, food now costs us less than it did in 1960, but the proportion of personal income now spent on medical treatment is three times higher than it was in 1960. Although cheaper, less nutritious food is not solely responsible for the escalating price of health care, experts do attribute $250 billion a year to bad diet in our own country alone.
And the problem is hardly restricted to North America. 50 years ago, only a small proportion of the Mexican population was overweight or obese. Today 70% percent of Mexicans fit that description. Obesity is now said to be a greater health problem than malnutrition in India. A diet overly rich in sugars, refined carbohydrates, additives, and meat, a diet promoted relentlessly by a few multinational corporations—PepsiCo, for instance, spends $3 billion a year worldwide on advertising its products. This is mainly responsible for the unhealthy and unsustainable trends that we are seeing. And each year it leaves millions more in the paradoxical position of being both overfed and undernourished.
So no wonder the World Health Organization has now classified obesity as a global epidemic, and a leading cause of premature death. Generous government cereal crop subsidies, international trade agreements like NAFTA, have contributed to the replacement of indigenous foods with agribusiness nutritionally impoverished but highly profitable products. And unfortunately, some highly respected health advocacy organizations, like the American Heart Association, have been lending industry a helping hand in this regard. As Michael Pollen has observed, the AHA—the American Heart Association—has bestowed its Heart Healthy Seal of Approval on heavily refined, sugar-laden products such as Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, Trix cereal, Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice—ha!—ice cream. Michael Pollen warns, avoid all foods that make health claims, because deregulation has made it only easier every year for food companies to make increasingly dubious assertions.
Its effect on human health is just one of the pernicious side effects of an industrial diet. The food being consumed by an increasing percentage of the world's population is also sullying our relationships with one another and our relationship, obviously, with the natural world. And the longer that we retain our current practices, the more support we give to today's vested interests, and ultimately the greater the harm that will be exacted.
Now the problem is clearly one of a practical nature. How might we best satisfy humanity's elementary needs? That's the practical issue. But there is also an inescapable ethical dimension to be considered as well. For as John Franklin observes, ethics reflects our resolve to stay in tune with the world. I like that definition. Ethics reflects our resolve to stay in tune with the world. And because the act of eating does connect us most essentially with the world we inhabit, every forkful makes a statement about who we are and what we care about. And this requires us not only to choose what will work, but also what is right. What will promote healthy reciprocal sustainable relationships within and between the human and the bionic communities?
Now, regretfully, many otherwise thoughtful people, intelligent people, well-read people, still regard this simple daily act of eating to be a necessary but altogether rather inconsequential or trivial matter. So not long ago, for instance, the University of Wisconsin's College of Arts and Sciences established a campus-wide reading program, and its purpose was to expose students and faculty to a single, socially relevant piece of recent literature. Everyone in the college was encouraged to buy and read and discuss a book that a specially-appointed committee had selected for their consideration.
And when Michael Pollen's In Defense of Food was chosen two years ago, one of the university's more celebrated faculty members expressed publicly his dismay. "With all of the important issues facing the world today," he sniffed, "why should students and faculty waste their time with a subject as trivial as eating?" So when did eating become a morally neutral or inconsequential issue, simply a matter of nutritional needs and personal taste rather than an act requiring at least a measure of conscientious deliberation?
Now, certainly religion has always had something to say about what, how and when food should be eaten, and in some instances, religion has established guidelines for the procurement of our food. As Peter Singer and James Mason observed, many indigenous hunter-gatherers have these elaborate codes about who may kill which animal and when. And in traditional Jewish, Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist ethics, discussions of what should and should not be eaten occupies a very prominent place.
And indeed, the depth of an individual's faith commitment could often be judged by the scrupulousness by which he or she observed certain dietary rules and prescriptions. Singer and Mason also note that in just about every school of religion and philosophy that one would care to mention, terms like temperance, self-restraint—virtues closely related to eating—are emphasized. And that such ideas, such principles, receive so little attention today is a clear sign of just how far we have drifted from the spiritual and ethical moorings to which our ancestors were tethered.
Modern American culture is fairly empty of any suggestion that one's relationship to the land, to consumption, and to food is a spiritual matter. Novelist and farmer Barbara Kingsolver writes, "But it's true, she continues. The decision to attend to the health of one's habitat and the food chain is a religious, a spiritual choice. Yes, it's also a political choice, a scientific choice, a personal, and a convivial choice. But it's also a spiritual choice. And the good news is that more and more people every year are catching on to this, and we are beginning to see more clearly the connection between eating, the quality of life we enjoy, the clarity of purpose, the experience of connection that we all crave."
Now as Unitarian Universalists, as we noted this morning, and for the past couple of years, we have been attempting forthrightly to address these issues. Care for the environment, concern for human rights are principles that UUs have long extolled, and for the past couple of years, we have all been encouraged to study and to ponder the relationship of these key principles to our dietary habits. But principles, as we know, mean nothing in the abstract, and the challenge now, in the years ahead, is to forge, increasingly, that solid connection between our everyday choices and the convictions that we, as religious liberals, hold.
I mentioned this morning in my comments that preceded the vote on the Resolution of Conscience that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the titular spokesman for the Anglican Confession—that he has recently taken up this cause, and he has urged his colleagues to make ethical eating a priority. At his prompting the Church of England recently issued a report entitled Sharing God's Planet. Every Christian, the report says, has a duty to care for every part of God's creation. And that means practicing sustainable consumption, supporting free trade, and even serving organic bread and wine at the communion rail.
In my own community of Madison, Wisconsin, local faith communities—indeed. Hear it for Madison, in most respects. We're trying to deport our governor, but that's another matter. Send him to the ranks of the unemployed.
In my own community of Madison, Wisconsin, local faith communities, including the congregation I serve, have banded together for a purpose similar to that around which Anglicans have convened. One initiative, a winter farmer's market, encourages area churches to host and to facilitate a market on a given Saturday sometime between December and April. More than a dozen vendors participated in the market that we sponsored in our facility in March, at which there were also educational presentations, live music, and a fresh locally-sourced luncheon for the [? co-members ?] of the congregation.
There's another local interfaith coalition in Madison that plans and organizes an annual Earth, Food, and Faith celebration that is open to the larger public. Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Unitarian Universalists participate in this all-day event that, again, was held on our campus a year ago. Lectures, workshops, displays, kid-friendly activities, vendors, a community meal were all included in the arrangements for Food, Faith, and Earth Day.
And faith communities are strategically positioned to have a real impact in this area, if for no other reason than that eating has always received considerable emphasis in the teaching and the devotional activities of religion. From the Passover Seder to the Eucharist to the post-service potluck to the stone soup celebrations that are a common feature in many UU churches, congregation life affords all of these teachable moments, opportunities for enlightenment, instruction, and the presentation of alternative food products and practices. There's even coffee communion, the only universal sacrament celebrated by UUs.
Well, 15 years ago, I was approached by a representative from Equal Exchange, and I was asked to help that particular company establish a presence in Madison. We didn't have any fair trade coffee in Madison 15 years ago, and at the time, the society I serve was still buying el cheapo coffee from, yes, Sam's Club. Yes. Transformation is possible.
Well, it took some doing, but ultimately I did persuade our rather frugal church administrator to make the switch to Equal Exchange coffee, in conjunction with which we acquainted our congregation with the concept of free trade products. Members were also encouraged to contact the local store that they shopped at and encouraging them to stock Equal Exchange coffee. Within a month, several of them had agreed to do absolutely that. So a single faith community had struck an important blow, an initial victory for free trade in south central Wisconsin.
AUDIENCE: Fair trade.
MICHAEL SCHULER: Fair trade. Sorry. What did I say?
AUDIENCE: Free trade.
MICHAEL SCHULER: Free trade. No. Fair trade. Many years later, and in conjunction with the UUA's Ethical Eating Initiative, the First Unitarian Society of Madison put together its own ethical eating task force, and they created a mission statement that reads like this: "At First Unitarian Society, we will aim to be more aware of what we eat, why, and how our food choices affect the planet and its inhabitants. We will celebrate the joyful aspects of eating in community. We will be catalysts for awareness and change in helping people make daily food choices that are ethical, healthy, and a basis for spiritual practice."
Now, people in our neck of the woods are particularly receptive to this kind of mission, to this sort of message. The Dane County Farmer's Market, which opened in 1972, runs from late April to early November on the Capitol Square, where over 400 vendors gather to offer their goods on a weekly basis. It is the largest producers-only market in the United States, and it draws an average of 30,000 customers on a typical summer Saturday. Moreover, the Dane County Farmer's Market around the capital is but one of 20 weekly markets available to consumers in the greater Madison area. Figures now indicate that more than 10% of Dane County residents, which is over 550,000 people—more than 10% get a substantial part of their fresh foods at farmer's markets and from local CSAs.
And moreover, we have publications—and I have some of these available on the back table if you're interested in picking one up—such as Sustainable Times, which was the brainchild of just one individual, and it is an absolutely marvelous resource for anyone interested in ethical and sustainable eating. And we have the REAP Food Group, which every year produces the Farm Fresh Atlas with a listing of all the local CSAs that you can join and all of the farmer's markets within a 50-mile radius of Madison. These make it easy for consumers to make conscientious choices about the food available in the local community.
And it was interesting, because when I was down in the display area earlier on, I noted that here in south central Carolina, we have a local food guide as well. Fresh from the farms of the southern Appalachians. And what I learned from the man who was sitting at the table is that, with the disappearance of the furniture-building industry in towns like Lenoir and Lincolnton, that more and more people have gone back to the land and are growing sustainably-produced food here in the mid-south.
So while Madison may be somewhat ahead of the curve with respect to its food ethos, other places are catching up. And frankly we were not ahead of the curve when I arrived there 23 years ago. But during my tenure in Madison, there has been an ongoing incremental consumer revolution, and Madison citizens have increasingly sought out purveyors of healthier, sustainably-produced products and they are rewarding them with their patronage dollars. This is a replicable revolution, if enough people make a serious commitment to good food and are willing to put it on their table.
In today's market-driven civilization, Eric Schlosser points out, nobody is really forced to buy fast food. The first step toward meaningful change, he says, is by far the easiest. Stop buying it. The executives who run the fast food and the convenience food industry are not bad man. They are businessmen. They will sell free-range organic grass-fed hamburgers at a reasonable price, if enough people demand it. They will sell whatever brings them a profit.
So at this point, let me just back up for a few minutes to ask a key question. Apart from certain health-related issues that I've already mentioned around eating industrially-produced food, what, more broadly, is wrong with fast food, convenience food, processed food, all the cheap, abundant, readily-available, tempting food that we have been feeding ourselves and our children for the past 50 years? At the risk of rehearsing the obvious, and a lot of the obvious is included in these marvelous website materials that John mentioned a moment ago—I ran off a copy of it in black and white because it would be kind of expensive to do the full-color version—but there is tremendous information on the website that John mentioned, so please consult it. So, again, at the risk of rehearsing the obvious, let me mention just a few of the more obvious objections to the modern industrial diet. And I apologize if some of you are so well-read that you have heard this before.
The environmental costs, as I'm sure you realize, are considerable. Based on my own early involvement with a small-scale agricultural enterprise, I can appreciate how thousands like it have contributed to problems that we have yet to come to terms with, much less resolve. Located on a major tributary of the Mississippi River, our farm added pesticides, herbicides, nitrogen, and phosphorus to a waterway already contaminated with raw sewage from the cattle and hogs that grazed along its unprotected banks. Carried downstream on the river's quick currents, this toxic brew eventually reached the Gulf of Mexico, where it helped to create that oxygen-depleted dead zone in the Gulf that is now the size of the state of Connecticut, the dead zone that is predicted to grow even larger this summer with the rising flooding upstream.
Now, despite its gravity, agricultural runoff has received nothing like the attention that has been paid to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year. And why is that? Well, probably because it's an incremental growing problem, but also because, since World War II, American agriculture has become addicted to its chemical inputs and has failed to adopt sound soil and water management practices. Industrial scale production of cereal grains and soybeans exacts a tremendous environmental toil, not just in terms of the quality of our water, but in other ways as well.
Loss of soil fertility, groundwater contamination and depletion, habitat loss, the decline of biodiversity, new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pesticide-resistant insects, the collapse of honeybee colonies. All reasons for concern, as is the world's increasing reliance on just a few genetic varieties of important food staples. At one time, when dozens of varieties of potatoes and corn and apples and other commodities were under cultivation, the system was far less prone to catastrophic collapse, which is exactly what happened in Ireland during that infamous potato famine. At the Madison farmer's market, shoppers can still purchase many heirloom products grown by conscientious local cultivators, people who are probably doing more than Monsanto to prepare us for a food-depleted future.
And the same problems have been cropping up in other parts of the world. Anuradha Mittal is an Indian-born agricultural scientist. And she reports that farms that were once geared to local consumption have been switching rapidly to cash crops for export. And the cost to the environment in India has been heavy. Third-world farmers, she writes, are polluting their own air, water, and earth to grow products like tulips for the Western market, instead of growing food to feed their own people.
Moreover, the packaging and the long-haul transportation of modern convenience foods consumes so many precious resources, practically as many as the act of farming itself. And despite its claims of efficiency, as much as half of all the foodstuffs produced by the industrial system are simply wasted. Half, left to rot in the fields, thrown out because of a minor flaw in its appearance, tossed in the dumpster once its expiration date has passed. And so, if any word could be applied to the industrial food production system, it would not be efficient. It would be gluttonous.
There's also an unacceptable human price to be paid for maintaining the status quo. More than a million undocumented workers are laboring in US fields alone, unprotected by law, underpaid, uninsured, exposed regularly to toxic chemicals, housed in hovels, subject to deportation at a moment's notice. Yet our rural counties, with the largest and most profitable agribusiness concerns, also report the country's highest levels of rural poverty.
In 1960, Harvest of Shame, narrated by Edward R. Murrow, was broadcast on primetime television. And this powerful documentary about the working and living conditions endured by seasonal farm workers was described as a wakeup call to the nation 51 years ago. Sadly, very little has changed since then. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 remains the law of the land. It excludes agricultural workers and their children from protections enjoyed by employees in virtually every other US industry.
And injustices also occur further down the production line. Just a few decades ago, most meat-cutters in this country were unionized and received decent wages and benefits. Most of them now toil in purgatorial, factory-like abattoirs for less than a living wage. And most, of course, are not native-born. As Matthew Scully writes, "Just as in St. Thomas More's Utopia, where the bloodletting was left to the slaves, today we have our immigrants, who don't ask a lot of questions, don't make demands, don't start unions or any of that kind of nonsense. They just keep to themselves."
And then, of course, there are the hundreds of thousands flipping burgers and jerking sodas in those ubiquitous fast food franchises where so much of our processed, industrially-produced food ends up—only marginally better-off than the farm workers and the meat-cutters who occupy other niches in the production chain. These men and women absorb all of the costs and receive virtually none of the benefits of the current system.
The farm culture itself, the culture that I grew up with, has also been buffeted by agribusiness. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, advised America's farmers to "get big or get out." And of course, for many, including my own parents, there was no alternative but to get out. And so, between 1970 and 1992, a million family farms simply disappeared. And many more have followed in their wake. To raise conventional cereal crops or livestock on a farm the size of the one I grew up on is completely economically infeasible. And anyone who even tries to make the effort had better have a decent second income.
The transformation of rural life over the past 30 years has been breathtaking. Concentration of the hog industry has put close to half of all hog farmers out of business. Half a million cattle ranchers in the same period have simply called it quits, sold off their herds. The suicide rate among farmers and ranchers is three times the national average. Abandoned homesteads, ghost towns, have become an increasingly common sight in America's Heartland.
A friend of mine in Madison worked for the USDA for many years. His job was to try to help small farmers stave off foreclosure. The job became so depressing that ultimately he threw in the towel and took early retirement. And this is not just a national trend. It's a global one.
NAFTA—the North American Free Trade Agreement, ratified during the Clinton administration—allowed for the wholesale exportation of US government-subsidized corn to Latin America. As a result, in Mexico alone, the livelihood of millions of small-scale Mexican producers was destroyed, wiped out. Forced off the land, these traditional farmers retreated to shanty towns around Mexico's big cities, to the maquiladora factories along our border, or into the stream of illegal aliens seeking work in our country's fields, processing plants, and slaughterhouses.
A similar tale has been unfolding in India, where farmers who once did grow food for local consumption have been convinced by multinational corporations to grow cash crops for export instead. So in Uttar Pradesh, India's most productive agricultural state—in Uttar Pradesh, Vandana Shiva writes, farmers were urged by corporations to begin growing potatoes to be made into potato chips for Frito Lay. Convinced that this was indeed the path to greater prosperity, the farmers, legions of them, took the plunge. But then, potatoes flooded the market, prices collapsed, potato chip makers like Frito Lay walked off with the bacon, and the farmers were left with insurmountable debts.
Shiva laments, a corporation like Monsanto actually celebrates such a crisis. When we had a severe drought last year, Monsanto called it a good thing, because it wiped out the small farmers and paved the way for large-scale, highly mechanized operations. Unsurprisingly, suicide rates in Uttar Pradesh have spiked.
As consumers, we are also ripped off by the current food system. Apart from its contribution to our health problems, much of what industrial agriculture produces is an insult to human taste buds. Just consider the California strawberry, the Florida beefsteak tomato, the Texas cantaloupe, the Washington state Red Delicious apple. All of these represent fool-the-eye attempts to substitute quantity for quality and for real eating pleasure. In the US and in Canada, we pay less for our food that people in any other country in the world, Michael Ableman says, but we pay for it many times over, once we have left the checkout counter.
Individually, we pay a price in terms of reduced satisfaction in what we eat. But our relational lives suffer as well, from a proliferation of convenience foods and inexpensive microwave ovens that allow every member of the household to fend for him or herself. How many Americans still practice genuine table fellowship? Commentators from Mary Pfeiffer to Michael Pollan have complained about the steady weakening of the cultural mores that once required every member of the family to sit down for that shared leisurely evening meal.
Not only does this practice helped to keep adults and children connected and in communication, but it is also a critical part of the whole socialization process. It is the temporary democracy of the dinner table, Pollen writes, it is here that children learn the art of conversation, acquire the habits of civility, of sharing, of listening, of taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. And it is when such habits are lost and we eat on the run that our society declines.
So for all of these reasons—pleasure, conviviality, the sharing of common interests, the reinforcement of common values—for all these reasons, convenience foods and fast food should be used sparingly and with full recognition of their external social costs. As the 1989 manifesto of the Slow Food Movement cautions us, we are enslaved by speed. And we have all succumbed to the same insidious virus, fast life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes, forces us to eat fast food. To be worthy of the name, homo sapiens should rid himself of speed before it reduces him to a species in danger of extinction.
A little dramatic for the Slow Food Movement, but there it is.
We could not leave this broad subject without saying at least a few words about the animals that do provide most of the protein in the typical American diet. 95% percent of the meat, milk, and eggs available in American supermarkets is produced on factory farms, which Matthew Scully—a rock-ribbed conservative, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush—which Matthew Scully describes as corporate America at its worst. Despite his general support for free enterprise, Scully believes that factory farms deaden our ability to respond morally and emotionally to suffering of all kinds.
"The worst becomes the standard," he writes. "Tolerance of these facilities dictates a tolerance of just about everything else—in effect, moving the ethical bar lower and lower until after a while the critical faculties break down entirely and one cruelty is used to justify another. New necessary evils defended and permitted merely because the old ones still go on."
Now, factory farms get away with inhumane treatment of livestock because the American consumer demands cheap meat and plenty of it. But also, they get away with it because federal laws governing the welfare of farmed animals are virtually nonexistent. In addition, most rural states have written into their anti-cruelty laws exemptions for common farming practices, including those that are employed by CAFOs, confined animal feeding operations. They're perfectly legitimate in most states.
And in the absence of enforceable standards and rules, conventional livestock producers don't have a whole lot of options. The minority who are sensitive to animal suffering are caught in this economic vice, because, as Peter Singer writes, the pig producer cannot afford to spend more than a penny, maybe a nickel, for purposes of reducing the pig's pain. If he does, someone who's not willing to spend anything to reduce that pain will create cheaper pigs, and he'll go out of business. The core issue, Singer says, is the commercial pressures that exist in a competitive market system, in which animals have become items of property and the conditions in which they are kept are not regulated by any federal or state animal welfare laws.
So one of the things we can do in our own states is to start putting pressure on our state governments to regulate CAFOs.
If the animal's suffering is not a significant enough reason for us to reconsider eating factory-farm meat, there is also the environmental harm that close confinement causes. Because of the quantities of food they gobble up, the waste they excrete, the drugs with which they are treated, the World Watch Institute has indeed declared food animals to be a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage that now threatens the human future. Food animals held in close confinement are responsible for so much deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.
That's the bad news about our food. I apologize that there is so darn much of it. But that is pretty much where things stand, and it is why science writer Richard Manning has described modern agriculture as not farming, but a dangerous and consuming beast of a social system. Now, the good news is that there is this growing body of information about the sources from which our food comes, which provides fresh opportunities for you and me to make better choices. Living in Wisconsin, we are perhaps in a better position than many because independent in-state investigative organizations have been undertaking this important work.
How many of you are familiar with the Cornucopia Institute? A couple of you. The Cornucopia Institute has a marvelous website. They are the ones that blew the whistle on Dean Foods when they began relying on factory farms for their Horizon brand of organic milk. The Institute also maintains rankings of free-range cage-free egg producers, many of which, the institute says, hardly meet minimal animal welfare standards. So if you see that free-range egg label on your carton, check it out with the Cornucopia Institute, because it may not be legitimate.
Watchdog groups like this—Cornucopia, The Center for Science in the Public Interest—are critically important, because the food industry is riddled with deception. Grassfed free-range beef? Well, all beef cattle are grassfed and free-range initially, for the first six or eight months of their life. But they finish their short life cycle on corn and supplements in a crowded, dirty feedlot. Sustainably harvested fish? The New York Times recently reported that as much as 25% of the fish that is sold in local markets is mislabeled. Even the Marine Stewardship Council, considered by many to be the gold standard when it comes to responsible seafood consumption—their recommendations are considered by many knowledgeable marine biologists to be unreliable. You've got to dig further.
And what about a product labeled USDA Certified Organic? It may be less meaningful than you think. As demand for products free of chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics has burgeoned, agribusiness has jumped in with both feet. Large corporations—Kraft, Dean, General Mills, Archer Daniels Midland—now offer products that technically meet the government's minimal criteria for organic, but they are often produced in a manner that differs very little from conventional commodities. They practice monocropping, close confinement of animals, use unjust labor practices, excessive packaging, depletion of non-renewable resources. All of these things can be accommodated under today's flexible definition of organic.
And moreover, large international corporations have bought out many of the movement's pioneers, and they are working overtime to further loosen the rules that govern organic production. Michael Ableman says that the original intention was not just to eliminate chemicals, it was about rebuilding soils, rebuilding communities. But as time went on, that movement became co-opted. It became industrialized. It now uses corporate organic agriculture. It uses the same level of energy, the same linear production methods, the same petroleum-based distribution system as conventional agriculture.
Farmers like Ableman, or Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia—these are people who insist that scale matters, and that sustainable corporate farming, organic or otherwise, is a contradiction in terms. Despite high demand for his products, Salatin refuses to expand his operation, because he says, you can only have so many chickens per cow on a farm like mine. And if the whole thing becomes too big, the farmer can't give the attention that the entire complex requires. It would quickly be thrown out of kilter.
Now, Gary Hirshberg, who founded and ran Stonyfield Farms for many years—he's of a different opinion from Salatin. Having sold his successful organic yogurt business to Dannon International, Hirshberg is eager to see organic go mainstream and eventually become affordable enough even to attract low-income consumers. And that would be a good thing. He says that this development would be good for their health, good for the environment, and that because business is the most powerful force on earth, it has the power, Hirshberg says, to overcome entrenched interests. It is one of those ironic twists, he continues, that make life so interesting—the same boundless thirst for profit that got the planet into trouble can also get it out of it.
Well, Hirshberg makes an interesting point, and yet we are right to be wary. Many of the organic products that are stocked in big box stores like Walmart don't come from this country. They come from overseas, which makes it difficult for the consumer to know the conditions under which it was produced and packaged. Moreover, with industrially-produced organic food, the labor question still looms. Does it matter, Eric Schlosser says, whether an heirloom tomato is organic if it was harvested with slave labor? If we want to eat ethically, it should matter.
One of the big differences between a farm like Polyface and one owned by a large corporation is simply the degree of transparency that's available. Now, the producers from whom I buy my products at our farmer's market—they are more than willing to have me come and visit their farms, give me a tour, share with me their production processes. Corporations—not so much.
Robert Kenner was the man who produced the documentary Food, Inc. He was taken aback by the stonewalling that he encountered when he was doing research for that film. He says, "I spoke with industry people from some of the largest companies in the food business, and I was shocked to discover that there was an absolute impenetrable barrier, separating the information they were willing to share with the moviegoing public. In all my years as a nonfiction movie maker," he says, "I never experienced as in the food industry so many people so consistent in their determination not to talk with me, despite the fact that they knew my film was going to be made, and that only by talking with me could they ensure that their perspective would be reflected on the screen."
So attempting to eat ethically today can seem like peeling off the layers of a very large onion. You answer one question and there's another question beneath it, and another question beneath it. Is it more ethical to eat local rather than imported food? Food researcher Viki Sonntag thinks yes, because locally-directed spending supports not only the area's farmers but also the whole web of relationships that, as she says, serve to restore the land and regenerate the community.
But ethicist Peter Singer offers a counter-argument. Food purchased from the developing world puts a few more pennies in the pockets of those farmers, and that may do far more to fight global poverty than to support your local grower. Adhered to rigidly, the principal of "buy locally" can boil down, Peter Singer says, to a kind of community-based selfishness. Questions not to be answered but perhaps to be pondered further.
And then finally, there is that perennial question of capacity. How do we supply nearly 7 billion human beings with an adequate degree of calories for their daily intake? Agribusiness has argued that there is simply no alternative to its own high-tech, large-scale genetically modified approach. It's the only way we're going to feed all these people. Small diversified farms, CSAs and the like—these simply cannot be relied upon to produce enough food to feed even half of the world's burgeoning population, they argue. And most people today that I talk to—they would probably agree.
But in fact, the claim is dubious. There have been longitudinal studies in England and at Cornell university that now seem to suggest that in the long haul, crop yields from sustainable organic plots are significantly greater than those from conventionally cultivated fields. And other studies have shown that small farms, 27 acres or less, have more than 10 times the dollar output per acre of large corporate farms. So much for economies of scale.
Northwest of Madison, near the town of Osseo, the Kostka family converted their nearly 800-acre spread to organic grain and milk production about 12 years ago. "And to see the way that our land is producing now," says Carla Kostka, "we are getting better yields, and in a good year of production [INAUDIBLE], we have higher yields than we've ever had before." And the Kostkas hope that their own success will inspire at least one or two of their grandchildren to follow in their footsteps, and to continue the farming culture.
Now, at the time that I was born, 60 years ago, 40% of all vegetables consumed in the US were grown in people's backyards. A local farmer supplied the meat that we ate. And that meat was cut by a local butcher. Barnyard hens laid all of our eggs, and a small plant on the outskirts of town churned out all of our milk and our butter. The average grocery store back then carried about 5,000 items. The average store today? 45,000.
All of which is simply to say that eating has gotten a whole lot more complicated in the last 50 years. To eat well and to eat right, we really do need to pay attention, and it is indeed time to do our homework. And at first Unitarian society, we've been encouraging our members to do exactly that. And so for the past couple of years, ethical eating has provided the focus both for our social justice program and for our family ministry program. Our ministers preach on it. Distinguished lecturers have addressed it, including urban agricultural pioneer Will Allen, former CBS newscaster turned organic rancher Bill Kurtis, and nutritionist Susan Nitzke. They have all given lectures in our facility over the last two years.
We have also organized scratch cooking classes for children and parents, food preservation demonstrations, and in conjunction with Earth Day, we have gifted our members with lettuce and spinach seedlings. Funds have been raised to supply African villages with solar ovens and community wells, and organized teams of volunteers have worked at the Madison food pantry's gardens, which supply local food pantries with 100,000 pounds of produce per year.
Family field trips to local farms and daily operations have been offered through the society, and one zealous group of foodies solicited recipes for a congregational cookbook, our first one in 60 years. The Food Hauler's Cookbook. And in the introduction to this cookbook, we find these words.
"As Unitarian Universalists, we commit ourselves to respect the interdependent web of existence and to work for greater justice and equity in the world. We have to understand that our elementary decisions can either support or compromise these values. By utilizing local, sustainable, humanely-produced ingredients wherever possible, we will not only treat ourselves to tastier, healthier fare, but we will promote the common good. The surrounding community retains more of its assets, economic and agricultural diversity are promoted, our ecological footprint shrinks, and knowing it's origination, we can feel more confident about the safety of our food. However much this collection of recipes might resemble so many others, we can make it uniquely Unitarian Universalist by using the right stuff. Bon appetit."
And in conclusion, just a word or two about consistency. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul advised members of that Corinthian congregation not to get too hung up about Jewish dietary laws. "If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go," Paul writes, "eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on grounds of conscience. Even if that fare includes meat previously offered for pagan sacrifice." And in the book of Romans, Paul says, "Some believe in eating anything. Others believe in only eating vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat. But resolve never to be a stumbling block or a hindrance on the way of your brother and sister."
You see for Paul, a faithful Jew, eating was a very important issue, but more important still to him was the principal of hospitality. And that was also true for Jesus of Nazareth. The act of eating never takes place in isolation, not even when you're eating all by yourself. On any given occasion, we may find that it's absolutely necessary to relax our scruples so that we can give other important values that we hold their due as well.
The Buddha, Sandra Garson tells us, was also a flexible spirit in this regard. Although a vegetarian diet was morally preferable, the Buddha himself consumed meat when it was offered, and he told his followers that it is allowable to eat the flesh if it is pure in three respects—that the eater has not seen, heard, or suspected that it has been specifically killed for him. That was his criteria. According to Garson, the Buddha also believed that the evils of ill conduct, lack of hospitality, were more harmful than eating meat. Or as Jesus remarked, it's not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person. It's what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
Peter Singer, the Princeton ethicist, has thought longer and harder about these issues than most people. And he himself is a strict vegetarian. But he agrees that purity is not the point. No matter who you are, he says, and given the complexity of the issues involved, you're never going to do everything right. Just do what you can to reduce your harmful impact. And yet it is important to have certain guideposts to help us on the journey to a new food future. And the guideposts that Peter Singer offers, I think, are good ones, and I will leave you with those.
Transparency. Do we have clear knowledge about how and where our food was produced? Fairness. Does the food we eat impose unnecessary or excessive costs on others? Humaneness. Does it inflict significant suffering on animals for insufficient reasons? Social responsibility. Do those who produce and prepare our food receive decent wages and enjoy safe working conditions? And finally, basic human need. Can we nourish ourselves equally well by making choices that meet a stricter ethical standard? Can we nourish ourselves equally well by making choices that meet a stricter ethical standard? And if so, we should deliberately begin to move in that direction.
Thank you for your attention. And we'll now entertain comments and questions.
REV. JOHN GIBB MILLSPAUGH: If you could say your name and your congregation before your comment or question.
CARRIE NIELSON: Great, thank you so much. I'm Carrie Nielson from Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pennsylvania. I am so excited that the Statement of Conscience passed, and I'm really pleased that people are taking seriously the class and geographic limitations that might affect some people in living out of that Statement of Conscience. What I haven't heard anything about is gender. A statistic I read said that currently in the United States, women do about 85% of the cooking. When I hear nostalgia for unprocessed local food and family dinners from scratch, I think about all the changes that have occurred that have gotten women out of the kitchen. And Michael Pollen writes eloquently about using local unprocessed food, and then admits in print that his wife does nearly all the food preparation at his house. So I want to make sure, in our communities, that we're also considering the gender aspect of ethical eating choices.
MICHAEL SCHULER: A great point Thank you. I would note that although my wife Trina does much of the evening cooking, I am the resident baker in our house. So all of the bread and the pies come from my hand.
AUDIENCE: I'm [? Sha Quan Beck ?] from the Billings Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Montana, and my very large concern in all of this food territory is the impact of genetically modified foods. The fact that the only real research that has been done to get these foods accepted by our regulatory agencies has been done by the likes of Monsanto themselves, and the researchers who would like to be testing this cannot get the product that they need. And in fact the people who have gone about trying to research, in every place from Russia to all over Europe and some places in the United States, have been targeted by the big food companies and are really having to watch for their lives.
Some of the concerns with genetically modified food are that tons of people are getting food allergies, and there's no way to trace anything. A huge issue with it is that, despite the fact that they said originally that they would not be using that much pesticide, they're having to use more and more pesticide. And somehow, all of that ends up in our digestive system, so that we have our own pesticide factory going in the digestive system, using genetically modified foods.
REV. JOHN GIBB MILLSPAUGH: Well, thank you. And those of you who were at the morning session know that genetically modified foods and concerns about labeling and so forth were added to the Statement, so we now have a foothold to work on these issues as an association, if we wish.
We have one last question. I'll then make a closing comment, and Michael will be available for a few minutes to sign books and answer questions up here.
MICHAEL SCHULER: If anybody would like a copy of Making the Good Life Last, I have a limited number of copies here. They're also available for sale at the UUA bookstore.
AUDIENCE: Thanks. I know you spoke a lot about concern about the land and farming practices. Climate scientists tell us that, on the road we're going, we're going to have a permanent dust bowl from Kansas to California. A lot of these other things are going to seem like rather small potatoes, I think, if that's the future. And there were small mentions of climate change in this talk, but really not very much. And I'm just wondering, as we consider ethical eating, what are the considerations that we should be looking at in terms of climate change?
MICHAEL SCHULER: Yes. Good question. Obviously, these issues are very closely connected. And we take them very seriously in Wisconsin, because there are certain kinds of products that are traditional in our Wisconsin climate that are probably not going to be around another 30 years, one of them being maple syrup.
One of the people who I have admired for many years, and who's doing groundbreaking work in trying to develop a whole new strategy for growing grain crops, is Wes Jackson. And of course, Wes Jackson is experimenting with perennial food grains. And if, in fact, he were to receive more support from the federal government and from nonprofit organizations, he could be moving ahead more quickly. Because one of the answers to an increasingly arid climate is to turn from water-intensive kinds of annuals to less water-dependent types of perennials. And so if you are interested in at least one of the ways to strategize for the future and the prospects that you describe, it's to get in touch with the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas run by Wes Jackson.
REV. JOHN GIBB MILLSPAUGH: Mitigating climate change is now also part the Study/Action Issue, or Statement of Conscience, I need to say now. And you might also be interested in looking up a report called Livestock's Long Shadow, which is from the United Nations, which says that actually we're experiencing more climate change as a result of animal agriculture than the entire transport sector, than all planes, trains, buses, cars, et cetera, combined. So some interesting data out there.
I want to say on behalf of those of us who have gathered, Michael, that your talk was simply extraordinary. We will leave grateful and impressed, but if we leave it at that, it would be a mistake. May we also have the courage to leave inspired and challenged. You came to speak to us today not to make it about you, but to make it about us. And thank you for reminding us of all of our power to make a difference, and may we do so in the years ahead, through the ethical eating work, and partnering with you and the others throughout the country who will be engaged.
We apologize, we didn't have as much time for questions as we thought, but we will all be living those questions in the years to come, and what better way to do it than in community. Thank you.
The Welcome Table: Common Ground on Ethical Eating is General Assembly 2011 event number 3046.
For more information contact environment @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Sunday, February 12, 2012.
- What is Environmental Justice
- Resources for Environmental Engagement
- Green Sanctuary
- Ethical Eating
- Climate Change
- Dependence on Fossil Fuels
- Access to Essential Resources
- Sustainable and Local Economy